Playwright Julia Cho hates you for your lying ways.
You know, the stories that tell you one thing when you know the opposite is true, the careful shadings of truth that give color to your bland worthlessness, the self-deceptions that offer you a smidgen of hope in a hopeless world.
Mrs. K, the titular instructor in Cho's provocative new play The Piano Teacher, loves the comfort her little stories create for her almost as much as she loves the Ding Dongs, cookies and junk-food television she watches.
Retired for several years and awash in happy memories of her late husband and the teaching she did, the lonely Mrs. K picks up the phone and randomly calls her old students, fishing for their stories to compliment her own. Most have moved away or forgotten her, but the two students who do remember and decide to visit have sharply different understandings of their time together than she does. And their memories involve the piano teacher's husband: while the children waited in the kitchen for their lessons, Mr. K reminisced about his past in an unnamed, war-torn country. The stories were so nihilistic, so graphic, so desperate to be spoken, that the uncomfortable children stopped coming for lessons.
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In a play so concerned with the words that spring from its characters' mouths, it's a disappointment that Cho only suggests Mr. K's abominations, instead of letting us actually hear them. A bit more writing would have allowed us to share the misery the stories inflicted on the innocent kids, and would have made Mrs. K's climactic betrayal more horrifying than it is.
Instead, much like Mrs. K, the playwright fudges, letting her protagonist—and her audience—off the hook when she could have taken that hook and set it.
Those caveats aside, director Kate Whoriskey's subtle direction, Linda Gehringer's equally heart-felt and brutal lead performance, as well as the performances of her two students (with Toi Perkins' Mary Fields a standout of quiet strength) take us into the limitations of Mrs. K's world-view, but force us to ask bigger, more encompassing questions about ourselves and the world around us: Are those crying out to be heard—like Mrs. K's husband—getting the attention they need, or are we so caught up in our own little comfort zone, we don't have the time? Even more crucially, if we're not available for others, who will listen when it's our turn to tell the stories??
THE PIANO TEACHER AT SOUTH COAST REPERTORY, JULIANNE ARGYROS STAGE, 655 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (714) 708-5555; WWW.SCR.ORG. TUES.-FRI., 7:45 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., 2 & 7:45 P.M. THROUGH APRIL 1. $20-$60.